Pavel Kogan was a talented Russian-language neo-romantic Soviet poet. Millions of Russians know by heart his song "Brigantine" and the last two lines of his poem "The Tempest":
Ever since I was a child I disliked an oval
Ever since I was a child I would draw an angle.
Pavel Kogan was born in 1918 in Kiev to a traditional Jewish family. Being a rebel, he rejected a traditional Jewish education but still his future lyrics was not devoid of religious overtones. In 1922, the Kogans moved to Moscow. From 1936 to 1939, Pavel Kogan studied at Moscow's Institute of Philosophy, Literature, and History (IFLI) and then at the Maxim Gorky Institute of Literature. His mentor, the noted Soviet poet Ilia Selvinsky (a Krymchak Jew by origin) regarded Kogan as one of the best students in his seminar.
Kogan wrote his first poems in 1934. His poems are imbued with a romantic spirit of rebellion. Toward the end of the 1930s, his poems were often bellicose and, later, in the 1960s and later he was often criticized for his militarism. However, in the years preceding World War II militarist motifs were common in Soviet prose and poetry.
Kogan liked to travel and on many occasions left home to hike around various regions of his country. The German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 caught him in Armenia with a geological expedition. Kogan returned immediately to Moscow and volunteered to join the Red Army. One could have expected nothing different from a poet who wrote about death in battle, who dreamt about combat, who saw his Soviet motherland as extending "from Japan to England" and from the North Pole to the Ganges. How could such a person not desire to take part in decisive battles?
At this point one might compare this Russian-Jewish poet with his unfortunate counterpart, the German-Jewish poet Ernst Lissauer (1882-1937). When at the start of World War I in 1914, German Emperor Wilhelm II declared a Burgfrieden, a truce between all parties and religions of his Empire, the fervent German patriot Lissauer wrote the poem "Song of Hate against England." After that, Lissauer tried to enlist in the imperial Army, but was rejected as being too obese and unfit for warfare. At that point, Lissauer decided not to attempt to enlist again.
The Soviet Jew Pavel Kogan was a different type. In the summer of 1941 he had returned to Moscow and tried to enlist but was rejected due to his too frail physique and asthma. However, Kogan did not accept rejection, as had Lissauer 27 years earlier. Kogan completed a series of army courses, and then asked to be drafted as a military interpreter since he had a total command of Yiddish. He was conscripted in 1942 with the rank of lieutenant. After brief service as a military translator, Kogan was transferred to the intelligence corps. He was killed by a German sniper at the age of 24 while leading a reconnaissance unit of the scouting section of an intelligence group.
The last poem Kogan wrote was about death.
"And having choked on the Internationale
We lie face down on the dried-up grass."
An Israeli critic has suggested that in these lines the Internationale functions as a kind of "Shema Yisrael," the prayer that a Jew traditionally recites before dying. (Lapidus, Rina. Young Jewish Poets Who Fell as Soviet Soldiers in the Second World War. Routledge, 2014, p. 159.) This observation makes sense when we recall that Pavel Kogan was born into a traditional Jewish family.
The first books of poetry by Kogan were published only in the 1960s, under Khrushchev's liberalization policy ("The Thaw").